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The Spirit of Tombstone

THEY say ghosts walk the streets of this dusty desert town. It's easy to understand why.

With a name like Tombstone and a frenzied history of bloodshed, this outpost near the southwestern edge of the United States has a reputation that's … well, haunted. And it doesn't help to see a dozen gunslingers die each day in the town's sandy red dirt.

The fights are staged, but Tombstone's checkered past is real, I learned when I spent a few days here earlier this month searching for ghosts. Tombstone, which advertises itself as "The Town Too Tough to Die," surprised me. So did the spirits of its past.

Nearly half a million people — many of them European — make their way to this wind-swept corner of the Sonoran Desert each year, jogging 60 miles southeast from Tucson to relive the bittersweet pleasures of the frontier West. They find a three-block Old Town, where saloons outnumber restaurants, stagecoaches still rumble down the street, and locals often wear six-guns along with their Stetsons, kerchiefs and rawhide boots.

"It's amazing how many people here never grew past the age of 10 or 11," said local historian Hollis Cook. "They just keep on playing cowboy."

But in this town of Old West legend and fantasy, that's considered a plus.

Tombstone owes its notoriety to the media, particularly Hollywood, which immortalized it in more than a dozen sagebrush sagas, including the bloody 1993 film "Tombstone," starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Ronald Reagan, Burt Lancaster and Henry Fonda were among other actors who brought fame to the streets of Tombstone.

The cinematic tales are based on the exploits of Wyatt Earp, who, with brothers Virgil and Morgan and comrade Doc Holliday, made history in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on Oct. 26, 1881. When the 30-second fight was over, three of their adversaries — Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton — lay dead. Tombstone residents call it the most famous shootout in history.

Although the gunfight has garnered all the attention, it is only one of many deadly encounters that took place in a town where lawlessness often was the rule rather than the exception.

And modern Tombstone, which owes its livelihood to tourism, makes sure visitors take notice: Stroll through the Boothill Cemetery, where graves are marked with legends such as: "Margarita, Stabbed by Gold Dollar" and "Here lies Lester Moore, four slugs from a 44. No Les, No More." Or walk down Allen Street, where signs point out murder locations: "Curly Bill Brocius killed Marshal Fred White here on Oct. 28, 1880."

Given that so many of Tombstone's inhabitants have met a violent end, it's not surprising that shadowy tales of apparitions and phantoms swirl on the desert wind.

"A lot of people came to live here 100 years ago and never left," said Bill Huntley, chuckling. "They're all still here, no doubt about it." Huntley, who has lived in Tombstone for 64 years, owns the Bird Cage Theatre, one of the few remaining original buildings in town. Some say the spirits of its bawdy past still celebrate there.

A parapsychology team from Duke University in Durham, N.C., studied Tombstone's haunted sites nearly half a century ago, Huntley said. Others have conducted paranormal studies since, including the History Channel, which recently released a DVD called "Haunted Tombstone."

Nonsense!NOT everyone believes the stories. Historian Cook, for one, thinks they're nonsense: "I never saw anything that would make me believe in ghosts."

Unlike Cook, I do believe in them. Well, maybe I believe in them. At least, I have no reason to disbelieve. I've always thought about them the same way I think about Bora-Bora: I don't have go there to believe it exists. But it's much more interesting to see it for myself.

So why not try to meet a ghost or two, as long as I was going to Tombstone? It seemed as good a place as any for a close encounter with a spirit.

I thought about the prospect as I drove south from Tucson, through ranchland, farmland and sagebrush. The trip should have taken an hour, but for me it was two: I spent an extra hour with my motor idling while I waited for construction delays to clear on Arizona 80.

I thought about it when I went to the motel where I had a reservation. But there was a mix-up, and no room was available for me after all. I thought about it when I tried to rendezvous with a Times photographer and found that my cellphone, which works all over the world, wouldn't work in Tombstone.

And I thought about it when I took a seat at the daily reenactment of the shootout at the O.K. Corral and a cloudburst struck.

Perhaps the local specters didn't share my eagerness to get acquainted.

"Things like that always happen in Tombstone," I was told by frequent visitor Ellen Bilbrey of Phoenix.

So, for the moment, I put aside my plan to meet a ghost and concentrated on the town instead.

Carved out of Apache land, Tombstone began as a silver-mining strike in 1877. It was named by prospector Ed Schieffelin, whose friends had warned him that the only thing he'd find in the region was his own tombstone; he had the last laugh when he found silver. By 1879, when the town was incorporated, miners, merchants, gamblers, prostitutes and pistol-packing cowboys had followed him.

"It was the last major mining camp in the Lower 48," said Don Taylor, another local historian. For many, "it was their last chance to strike it rich quick."

The town mushroomed, burned, was rebuilt, burned and was rebuilt again. During its rooting-tooting heyday in the 1880s, it was one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi, Taylor said.

At one time, Tombstone was 10 blocks square; now three tidy blocks of Allen Street remain as the heart of Old Town. The street has been closed to traffic — which once created a logjam — and the cracked asphalt covered with packed sand for a more authentic look.

Most tourists pop in for the day, swelling foot traffic on Allen Street's wide plank boardwalk and jamming into the O.K. Corral at 2 p.m. for a reenactment of the famous gunfight. At other times, visitors must settle for mechanized gunfighters or catch one of six other gun battles staged in town throughout the day.

There's a well-maintained courthouse, now a state historic park, where hangings once took place, and small museums, gift shops, gun shops, costume and hat shops, many of which have lower prices than in Tucson. Cowboys and cowgirls are everywhere. There's even a local dog — a black cocker spaniel named Ms. Lily — that greets tourists in a pint-size cowboy hat to raise funds for a nearby animal shelter.

And, of course, there are plenty of places to slake a thirst. I wandered down Allen Street, stopping in at Big Nose Kate's Saloon, the Crystal Palace Saloon and, finally, the Dragoon Saloon, where I ran into Mayor Andree DeJournett, who owns the friendly bar.

The mayor, a fast-talking former Michigan resident who has lived in Tombstone for three years, has big plans for his adopted town. "Curb appeal," he said. "It just needs more curb appeal."

DeJournett, 45, likes to talk about his vision for Tombstone. "This place is alive and vigorous, but it's not easy juggling a town that's alive with a town that's history. It needs to improve its image."

The region is growing, with retirees and others moving in, he said, and prices are going up. Homes cost $175,000 to $275,000, "but you can still get four acres of land for under $75,000."

Although he's been in office only a year, DeJournett is already the subject of a recall election, apparently backed mainly by supporters of the former mayor. While DeJournett and I were talking at a table on the patio, a man in a wide-brimmed hat joined us. Tex Culpepper was still armed and wearing the garb I'd seen him in earlier in the day when he played Morgan Earp in the O.K. Corral reenactment.

"Why do you do it?" I asked.

He grinned. "This is history. When I do this, it helps keep the West alive." Culpepper, who said he'd been a cowboy most of his life, admitted the reenactments take a toll, even though the gunslingers fire blanks. His injuries: "a concussion, broken bones, shot once in the face."

The subject turned to the recall. "Nothing has changed since the 1880s," Culpepper said. "Politics. It all comes down to politics. Except you can't shoot the people you don't like anymore."

The recall isn't the only controversy in this town of 1,700. The National Park Service put Tombstone on notice last year that its historic district could lose its status as a National Historic Landmark because of inaccuracies, such as fake facades, non-historic colors and bogus dates painted on newer buildings.

"People just come in, find an empty lot and build a new old building," said Cook. "It's a problem."

In September, a plan was drafted to save the landmark designation, including changing traffic patterns and adding trees to Allen Street. The town's progress will be checked in two years by the park service.

The man in blackI had learned a lot about Tombstone but not much about its ghosts. I backtracked through town asking questions. A bartender at Big Nose Kate's pointed to photos on the wall that he said showed apparitions and ghostly orbs. I squinted at the hazy black-and-white prints. I couldn't see them.

I stopped in a couple of shops, where clerks told me they had heard, seen and smelled things. Cigar smoke. Lilac perfume. A rowdy crowd when no one was there. One told me about a mysterious man in black who's frequently seen late at night near the Crystal Palace.

Longtime resident Huntley told the same story, saying he had seen the man three times, lounging against a post near the Crystal Palace. Legend has it that the mystery man is Virgil Earp, who was ambushed, shot and maimed outside the bar in 1881.

At the Bird Cage Theatre, I struck pay dirt. Employee Bill Clanton — a descendant of O.K. Corral victim Billy Clanton — said he often heard things he couldn't explain coming from the onetime opera house and gambling hall, now a dusty museum.

"They're always moving around in there," Clanton said, pointing to the museum. "There's laughing and carrying on you can't explain. You can smell smoke around the dice table. I tell them, 'You leave me alone and I'll leave you alone.' "

Sarah Washburn, a 19-year-old sales clerk in the Bird Cage gift shop, said she had a frightening experience her second day on the job. Washburn, whose work uniform is a dancehall costume — a low-cut taffeta and lace dress with red feathers in her hair — walked through the museum and seemed to catch a cowboy's eye.

" 'I'll be right down,' " he said to me. He was walking up the stairs to the second floor." She remembers he smelled like cigar smoke. She made some inquiries and found there was no one in the museum at the time.

"I think he wanted to buy me," she said in amazement. "Oh yeah, I believe in ghosts."

When I went back to the motel, I thought about the stories I had heard. They were interesting, but I wasn't convinced. I needed some after-hours research. Even though Cook said he didn't believe in ghosts, he had told me to visit Old Town at 10 p.m. "Who knows what you'll see?"

So at 10, I returned to Allen Street. A couple of saloons were open, but there was no one on the street. I moseyed down to the Bird Cage and stood outside, silently challenging its ghosts to perform. A streetlight in front of the old building started to blink.

"Stop," I said. It stopped.

"Blink," I said. It blinked.

Probably a short, I thought, moving on.

I started to feel silly. Hunting for ghosts at 10 p.m. seemed ridiculous. What self-respecting ghost would be out that early? I decided to try later.

At midnight, I made the rounds again. The streetlight outside the Bird Cage was on until I stopped in front of it; then it started blinking. I headed back toward the center of town. A block ahead of me, a man in a black frock coat and wide-brimmed hat was walking slowly near the edge of the street. He stopped, turned toward the street and leaned on a post.

Probably just left a bar, I thought. I steered clear of him and scouted the town a couple more times.

Nothing.

I glanced down toward the Crystal Palace, where I'd seen the man in black. He was there, leaning against the post.

Probably just a drunken cowboy.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Here lies Tombstone

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Southwest and United offer nonstop flights to Tucson. America West, Delta, US Airways and American have connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $78.

Driving from Los Angeles, take Interstate 10 past Tucson, then take Arizona 80 south to Tombstone. The town is about 550 miles from Los Angeles.

WHERE TO STAY:

Holiday Inn Express, 1001 N. Highway 80; (520) 457-9507, http://www.hiexpress.com . Two-year-old, two-story motel on the outskirts of town. Clean, nicely furnished. Heated pool, western movies shown nightly in the lobby ("Tombstone" is popular, of course). Doubles from $79, with breakfast.

Tombstone Motel, 502 E. Fremont St.; (520) 457-3478, http://www.tombstonemotel.com . Family-owned motel within walking distance of Old Town. Roomy units. Ask for a room in the newer wing. Doubles from $59, with breakfast.

Best Western Lookout Lodge, 801 N. Highway 80; (877) 652-6772, http://www.bestwestern.com . Western-themed motel overlooking the Dragoon Mountains. Restaurant, heated pool, fire pit. On the outskirts of town. Doubles from $85, with breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT:

Nellie Cashman Restaurant, 117 S. 5th. St., at the corner of 5th and Toughnut streets; (520) 4572212, http://www.nelliecashman.freeservers.com . Old-fashioned boardinghouse dining room features homemade food served on floral-print tablecloths. Steaks, pork chops, chicken. Entrees from $8.95

Longhorn Restaurant, 501 E. Allen St., corner of 5th and Allen streets; (520) 457-3405, http://www.bignosekate.com/bnklonghorn.htm , Family dining in a historic building. Barbecued ribs, steaks, Mexican dishes. Entrees from $5.75.

Six-Gun City and Crazy Horse Saloon and Restaurant, corner of 5th and Toughnut streets; (520) 457-3827. Saloon atmosphere. Ribs, steaks, pork chops, chicken and sandwiches and salads. Entrees from $8.95.

TO LEARN MORE:

Arizona Office of Tourism, 1110 W. Washington St., Phoenix, 85007; (866) 275-5816, http://www.arizonaguide.com .

— Rosemary McClure

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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